Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Afghanistan as a bailout state
By Tom Engelhardt
In the worst of times, my father always used to say, "A good gambler cuts his
losses." It's a formulation imprinted on my brain forever. That no-nonsense
piece of advice still seems reasonable to me, but it doesn't apply to American
war policy. Our leaders evidently never saw a war to which the word "more"
didn't apply. Hence the Afghan war, where impending disaster is just an
invitation to fuel the flames of an already roaring fire.
Here's a partial rundown of news from that devolving conflict: In the past week
or so, Nuristan, a province on the Pakistani border, essentially fell to the
Taliban after the US withdrew its forces from four key bases. (See
Taliban take over Afghan province Asia Times Online, October 29.)
Similarly in Khost, another eastern province bordering Pakistan where United
States forces once registered much-publicized
gains (and which Richard Holbrooke, now President Barack Obama's special envoy
to the region, termed "an American success story"), the Taliban are largely in
control. It is, according to Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal of the Wall Street
Journal, now "one of the most dangerous provinces" in the country.
Similarly, the Taliban insurgency, once largely restricted to the Pashtun
south, has recently spread fiercely to the west and north. At the same time,
neighboring Pakistan is an increasingly destabilized country amid war in its
tribal borderlands, a terror campaign spreading throughout the country,
escalating American drone attacks, and increasingly testy relations between
American officials and the Pakistani government and military.
Meanwhile, the US command in Afghanistan is considering a strategy that
involves pulling back from the countryside and focusing on protecting more
heavily populated areas (which might be called, with the Afghan war of the
1980s in mind, the Soviet strategy). The underpopulated parts of the
countryside would then undoubtedly be left to Hellfire missile-armed American
Predator drone aircraft.
In the past week, three US helicopters - the only practical way to get around a
mountainous country with a crude, heavily mined system of roads - went down
under questionable circumstances (another potential sign of an impending
Soviet-style disaster). Across the country, Taliban attacks are up; deadly
roadside bombs or IEDs are fast on the rise (a 350% jump since 2007); US deaths
are at a record high and the numbers of wounded are rising rapidly; European
allies are ever less willing to send more troops; and Taliban raids in the
capital, Kabul, are on the increase. All this despite a theoretical 12-1 edge
that US, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Afghan troops have over
the Taliban insurgents and their allies.
In addition, our nation-building "partner", Afghan President Hamid Karzai -
known in better times as "the mayor of Kabul" for his government's lack of
reach - was the "winner" in an election in which, it seemed, more ballot boxes
were stuffed than voters arrived at the polls. In its wake, and in the name of
having an effective "democratic" partner in Afghanistan, foreigners stepped in:
Senator John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke, and other envoys appeared in Kabul or
made telephone calls to whisper sweet somethings in ears and twist arms.
The result was a second round of voting slated for November 7, but Abdullah
Abdullah, Karzai's opponent, withdrew in protest from the runoff and although
Karzai was declared the winner, the real winner is, once again, the Taliban.
(And let's not forget the recent New York Times revelation that the president's
alleged drug-kingpin brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whom American officials
regularly and piously denounce, is, in fact, a long-term paid agent of the
Central Intelligence Agency and its literal landlord in the southern city of
Kandahar. If you were a Taliban propagandist, you couldn't make this stuff up.)
Given the disaster of the elections, and with foreigners visibly involved in
the process, all of this is a Taliban bonanza. The words "occupation", "puppet
government" and the like undoubtedly ring ever truer in Afghan ears. You don't
have to be a propaganda genius to exploit this sort of thing.
In such a situation, even good imperial gamblers would normally cut their
losses. Unfortunately, in Washington terms, what's happened in Afghanistan is
not the definition of failure. In the economic lingo of the moment, the war now
falls into the category of "too big to fail", which means upping the ante or
doubling down the bet. Think of the Afghan war, in other words, as the AIG of
American foreign policy.
Playing with dominos, then and now
Have you noticed, by the way, that the worse Afghanistan gets, the more the
pundits find themselves stumbling helplessly into Vietnam? Analogies to that
old counter-insurgency catastrophe are now a dime a dozen. And no wonder. Even
if it's obvious that Vietnam and Afghanistan, as places and historical
situations, have little in common, what they do have is Washington. Our
leaders, that is, seem repetitiously intent on creating analogies between the
What is it about Washington and such wars? How is it that American wars
conducted in places most Americans once couldn't have located on a map, and
gone disastrously wrong, somehow become too big to fail? Why is it that, facing
such wars - whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican - Washington's
response is the bailout?
As things go from bad to worse and the odds grow grimmer, our leaders, like the
worst of gamblers, wager ever more. Why is it that, in obscure lands under
obscure circumstances, American administrations somehow become convinced that
everything - the fate of our country, if not the planet itself - is at stake?
In Vietnam, this was expressed in the absurd "domino theory": if Vietnam fell,
Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), India, and finally California would follow like so
many toppling dominos.
Now, Afghanistan has become the first domino of our era, and the rest of the
falling dominos in the 21st century are, of course, the terrorist attacks to
come, once an emboldened al-Qaeda has its "safe haven" and its triumph in the
backlands of that country. In other words, first Afghanistan, then Pakistan,
then a mushroom cloud over an American city. In both the Vietnam era and today,
Washington has also been mesmerized by that supposedly key currency of
international stature, "credibility".
To employ a strategy of "less," to begin to cut our losses and pull out of
Afghanistan would - they know with a certainty that passeth belief - simply
embolden the terrorist (in the Vietnam era, communist) enemy. It would be a
victory for al-Qaeda's future Islamic caliphate (as it once would have been for
communist global domination).
By now, the urge to bail out Afghanistan, instead of bailing out of the place,
has visibly become a compulsion, even for a foreign policy team that should
know better, a team that is actually reading a book about how the Vietnam
disaster happened. Unfortunately, the citizenry can't take the obvious first
step and check that team, with all its attendant generals and
plenipotentiaries, into some former presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson or George
W Bush rehabilitation center; nor is there a 12-step detox program to recommend
to Washington's war addicts.
And the "just say no" approach, not exactly a career enhancer, has been used so
far by but a single, upright foreign service officer, Matthew P Hoh, who sent a
resignation letter as senior civilian representative in Zabul province to the
State Department in September. ("To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or
the worth in continued US casualties or expenditures or resources in support of
the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war ... The United
States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy
and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing
of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the
government from the people.")
More or less more? In this context, despite all the media drama - Is Obama "dithering" or not?
Will he or won't he follow the advice of his generals? - we already know one
thing about the president's upcoming Afghan war decision with a painful degree
of certainty: it will involve more, not less. It will up the ante, not cut our
losses. As the New York Times put it recently, "[T]he debate [within the
administration] is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many
more will be needed." In other words, we know that, in response to a war
everyone on all sides of the Afghan debate in the US now agrees is little short
of disastrous, he will, in some fashion, feed the flames.
Admittedly, Obama himself has offered few indications of what exactly he plans
to do (if he even knows). It's now being said, however, that, at the end of a
highly publicized set of brainstorming sessions with his vice president, top
advisors, generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congressional representatives,
and cabinet officers, he may (or may not) announce a decision before he sets
out for Tokyo on November 11.